Assessing Risk and Living Without a Rope – Lessons from Alex Honnold (#160)

The Tim Ferriss Show with Alex Hannold
Photo by Jimmy Chin

“You take a dump into free space, and it just completely disappears.” – Alex Honnold

Alex Honnold (@alexhonnold, Facebook: /alexhonnold) is a professional adventure rock climber whose audacious free-solo (no ropes, no partner) ascents of America’s biggest cliffs have made him one of the most recognized and followed climbers in the world. Honnold is distinguished for his uncanny ability to control his fear while scaling cliffs of dizzying heights without a rope to protect him if he falls.

His most celebrated achievements include the first and only free-solo of the Moonlight Buttress (5.12d, 1,200 feet) in Zion National Park, Utah, and the Northwest Face (5.12a) of Half Dome (2,200 feet), in Yosemite, California.

In 2012, he achieved Yosemite’s first “Triple Solo”: climbing, in succession, the National Park’s three largest faces—Mt. Watkins, Half Dome and El Capitan—alone, and in under 24 hours.

He is also the founder of the Honnold Foundation, an environmental non-profit, and to this day, he maintains his simple “dirtbag-climber” existence, living out of his van and traveling the world in search of the next great vertical adventure.

If you want to laugh your ass off, listen to this hilarious 2-minute story from Alex.


#160: Assessing Risk and Living Without a Rope – Lessons from Alex Honnold

Interested in another conversation discussing death-defying climbing accomplishments? — Listen to my conversation with Jimmy Chin. In this episode, we learn from the athlete (and artist) who cheats death (stream below or right-click here to download):

#114: The Athlete (And Artist) Who Cheats Death, Jimmy Chin

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: How do you assess risk? Does your process differ in business, athletics and other areas of life? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Selected Links from the Episode

  • Connect with Alex Honnold:

Facebook | Website | Twitter | Instagram| Foundation

Show Notes

  • The origin story of Alex Honnold [5:21]
  • Describing different types of rock climbing [8:44]
  • Why Alex Honnold was studying civil engineering [11:06]
  • If you had to pick a fixed location to live for 5 years, where would it be? [13:25]
  • On the ability to climb full-time or be a ‘dirt-bag climber’ [14:35]
  • Thoughts on the climbing industry and its popularity [17:43]
  • Self-talk for preparing for a challenging climb [20:41]
  • Philosophy and the benefits of living simply [22:41]
  • A funny “soloing” story [24:26]
  • Eating habits [27:29]
  • The most epic poop story – What happens when you have to take a shit on a big wall? [29:01]
  • The surprising self-care that is available when free soloing [31:56]
  • Alpinism and what it was like to be a beginner climber again [33:54]
  • How does Alex Honnold’s climbing differ from Jimmy Chin’s? [35:51]
  • Biggest climbing mentors [36:56]
  • Important elements to becoming a good climber [37:36]
  • The main ways to conserve energy when climbing [39:59]
  • What do you worry about? [41:44]
  • At what point do you stop working to make more money? [42:41]
  • Do you get depressed? [47:16]
  • Do you foresee a point in which you’ve accomplished all that you can in climbing? Is there always a “what’s next?” [48:47]
  • Approaches to improving elbow health [51:16]
  • Impressive climbers [52:40]
  • Do you ever have concerns about your influence on young climbers? [55:05]
  • On hitting the point where you decide to turn around and climb down [57:31]
  • The real story about the Yosemite freak out moment [59:25]
  • Best and worst jobs and deciding to stop attending Berkeley [1:02:44]
  • Favorite books [1:07:02]
  • On evaluating risk and managing fear [1:09:06]
  • Music for traveling and climbing [1:14:11]
  • When you think of the word successful, who is the first person who comes to mind and why? [1:19:16]
  • What people do you find inspirational? [1:19:35]
  • Food preparation and go-to dinners [1:22:26]
  • Morning rituals [1:23:38]
  • The lifestyle benefits of living in a van [1:24:23]
  • What recent purchase had the most positive impact on your life? [1:28:52]
  • Lessons learned from climbing [1:29:56]
  • At what climbing grades have you plateaued the most? [1:33:05]
  • If you could no longer climb, what would be your preferred physical activity? [1:35:42]
  • What, outside of free-soloing, are you world-class at? [1:36:50]
  • Advice to your younger self [1:38:03]
  • How Alex Honnold keeps his training journal [1:39:34]
  • What would you like your life to look like in 10 years? [1:41:23]
  • Pee bottles and how to live without a bathroom [1:41:49]
  • If you could have one billboard and place it anywhere, what would it say and where would it be? [1:43:28]
  • What have you changed your mind about in recent history? [1:44:36]

People Mentioned


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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59 Replies to “Assessing Risk and Living Without a Rope – Lessons from Alex Honnold (#160)”

  1. 19:55 Honnold: “you can’t take random people off the street and train them to solo climb, people will literally die”

    Ferriss: “I’m sorry have you seen my TV show…. challenge accepted”

    HAHA 😀

  2. I bet this kid is a real hoot at parties.

    @Tim Ferriss deserves a gold medal for getting through this one.

    1. Agreed. This is tough to listen to. I forced myself to get through it out of respect for Tim and the hope I would catch a gem.

    2. Definitely true.

      The fact, that you, Tim, managed to sound enthusiastic, friendly and interested throughout this interview is admirable. At some point, I would have been like “Fine, you don’t want to talk? Well you don’t have to do this, you know…”.

      The end result was still difficult to listen to. As we say in German, it was like trying to squeeze water out of a stone. Still, that was some world-class squeezing.

      1. If you aren’t into rock climbing I can understand that, but as someone who casually follows climbing this was a favorite podcast of mine.

  3. He’s an incredible athlete, check out “Valley Uprising” if you want to actually see what insane stuff these guys pull off ( the Yosemite climbs etc)

    1. That one I didn’t know about. Thanks for the tip!

      Honnold’s “60 Minutes” segment is one of the most amazing feats I’ve ever seen – It was quite scary to watch it for the first time, especially since I wasn’t aware that climbers did these types of ascents.

  4. YES! I haven’t even listened to this yet and it already made my day. I love the variety of guests you include on your podcast. I’ve even found myself refreshing your page daily excited for the next one. Thank you for all you do Tim! You rock.


  5. The article and graphics had our adrenaline going from the start. Congrats on your achievements and thanks for sharing! Great read.

  6. Is that a real quote or a typo? “You take a DUMP into free space” Something tells me that should be JUMP.

    Classic Tim. 😃

  7. I really appreciated the direct and difficult questions in this podcast. The ten million dollar scenario was very confronting.

    Telling the childhood Hulk story and describing your own perception of risk were masterful pieces of interviewing.

  8. Tim, you should tag your podcast as “Humans of the World” as in “Humans of New York”. Keep it up, great human life!

  9. A quick idea that would be extremely helpful for some of us (who have kids, jobs, and limited time to listen to podcasts): could transcripts of your podcasts be made available?

  10. New listener. Seems like Alex is hiding something deeper that he won’t discuss, seems a little evasive at times during the interview, maybe just his personality. Interesting fellow, and I admire his dedication to his sport. Unrelated, but I wanted to suggest you interview Cameron Hanes, one of the worlds best bow hunters, ultrarunner, business man,etc. would love to hear a discussion between him and Tim.

  11. Can’t wait to listen. Just visited Yosemite and it’s truly an amazing place. That inspired me to watch Valley Uprising (which features Alex). And now he’s being featured on my favorite podcast- thank you universe 😀

  12. Tim – I just found your blog and have sampled a few podcasts. The interviewee list is impressive and the insights are challenging. The morning ritual question is fantastic – the responses really give an intimate sense for how that person’s life is lived. (I could really relate to Brene’s answer – the morning kid grind). I’d like to hear from more women.

    Reading through the podcast list, I was immediately curious about:

    How many of your interviewees have families and child-rearing obligations? How did their productivity hacks/organizing principles/rituals change with the advent of children in their lives? If they have a child-rearing partner, how did they sit down and re-envision this new lifestyle so that both of them could still have time and energy for creative output? What are some examples of great performers and thinkers that are inspired by their kids? That stack parenting functions with the rest of their lives (like Katy Bowman)?

    Maybe women and parents aren’t the focus audience of your blog/podcasts, but you could probably inspire and prepare the next generation of men to be great performers *and* great parents. It would be really great to see this idea normalized. You have absolute creative license and enough people who take you very seriously, you could (you are?) changing the world!

    I look forward to listening to a lot more of your podcasts. Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. Check out the Kevin Kelly episode – he has quite a few kids, if I remember rightly. Also look at Leo Babauta – I don’t think he’s been on the podcast yet, but he’s done work with Tim and has 6 children.

  13. The second I checked my email, I immediately smiled. I’ve been hoping for this interview for a long time. Alex Honnold is amazing, and the perfect guest.

  14. Regarding Alex’s comments about vegetarianism being better for the environment… It’s a wide misconception that vegetarianism is better for the planet. It can be true, but it depends. If vegetarianism means that you are consuming mono-cropped grains, then no, it is not better for the environment. Think of all the farmland that is being used to grow those grains. All the roundup that gets sprayed on that land. The habitat taken from any number of animals that would otherwise be living there. How much fuel is burned harvesting, processing, and transporting those products. As a farm kid from Iowa, I know first hand how devastating this can be. Now think if some/most of that farmland was used to properly pasture animals. Miles upon miles of grass. How that would stop erosion. How there would be no herbicides and pesticides being sprayed. How it would support an ecology for any number of species. We need to not eat animal foods that are produced improperly, which is probably why Alex has chosen to be vegetarian. But we also need to understand that by not supporting the right kinds of agriculture, we are not necessarily help things much, if at all.

    1. You commitment to balance is respectable, but you need to consider the vast amount of land, water, and pesticides that goes into growing crops to feed cattle. Alex is right. The single thing that almost everyone could do to help protect the environment is to reduce or eliminate meat from their diets.

      1. Which is why I said we need to not eat improperly raised animal foods (use of antibiotics and animal waste is a huge issue too, but not in pasture based systems.) So in that context, I completely agree with you. Much of the grain production in the US is used to feed livestock. It’s a complete waste. And it’s this grain production that is what is truly hard on the environment. When you raise cattle in a grass/pasture based system, much, much less water is used, no pesticides or herbicides are needed, no antibiotics, no manure issues, and it actually rebuilds topsoil and traps carbon. Check out the work of Alan Savory to see how he is reversing desertification by using pasture based farming. This is not to say that the average American shouldn’t reduce meat consumption. Many/most of us should. And we should replace those calories with locally produced vegetables and legumes, not grains. But most people end up replacing meat calories with grains. And some of those grains are shipped to us from South America (quinoa) or other countries. You mean to tell me there’s no environmental impact from doing that? So my point is to truly help the environment, source as much food as possible from as local as you can (grow your own?), and reduce any form of food that supports grain based agriculture, meat or otherwise. Also, eat less packaged food. Every package you consume is a tree or petroleum based product that has been shipped around the world as well. Meat is a big issue, but the issue is much more complex than simply eating no/less meat.

  15. Tim- love LOVE your podcasts. I’ve been a silent listener for over a year and your words and interviews have inspired so much growth. I have some questions, especially after this podcast.

    1) do you feel that being type A, introverted, etc, have any affect on your social life, social anxiety for instance?

    2) if this has effected you, how have you learned to minamalize it? I know that you talk extensively on mediation, but I’m curious if you’ve seen anything else or done anything else to help curtail these?

    3) you mentioned minor depression, have you felt that this can be from hoping for too big of an outcome or not reaching a certain goal?

    Thank you so much for always having great conversations! I look forward to listening to many more.

  16. That’s the first time I heard Sacred Economics mentioned! It was written by Charles Eisenstein and can be broken down into three parts:

    1) What’s wrong with the current financial system and why it is unsustainable

    2) What does a sustainable financial system look like

    3) How we can reasonably transition to that sustainable financial system

    Tim, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book and the principles it discusses.

    1. Yes I was super stoked to hear that as well! Would be amazing if Tim had Charles on the podcast. Charles Eisenstein is one of my favourite people for sure. I hope you look into getting him on Tim!

  17. To the tiny home point who did the conversion and where did it get done?

    Can the details be shared?



  18. After just a few minutes I couldn’t believe how cool Alex was, so I paused the podcast to watch a few clips of him climbing and that just took the rest of the interview to another dimension. It was totally excellent when Tim found out about the van outside his house :-). Great guest and masterful interviewing.

  19. Hi Tim, great podcast with Alex Honnold. I am living in Europe and years ago came across another one of these super human guys you should look into. His name is Alain Robert. He is known as the French Spiderman. Keep up the good work.

  20. Here’s a little organisation trick I use to make my media consumption more efficient…

    When you download a podcast or video, once you have the MP3 or MP4 on your hard-drive, immediately edit the file name to have the length of the item at the start.

    For example, if your file is called:


    …and the interview is 02 hrs, 14 mins long, then change the filename to:

    02-14 – Tim_Ferriss_Talks_To_Arnie.mp3

    Why do this?

    Well, if you store all your intended listening/viewing media files in a single folder, Windows will now automatically order them all based on length, from shortest to longest.

    This means that when you know you have, say, 90 mins free to watch something, you can see at a glance which of your outstanding items is the best fit for that time.

    Plus, if you’ve got really behind with your media consumption, you can also see which are the big items you need to “get out of the way” first in order to make a dent in your backlog. You can also quickly tell roughly how much total time you’ll need to catch up on everything.

    If you have a single podcast that is split into multiple files (hour 1, hour 2 etc.), first find the total combined length of the entire episode, and then rename each part to have this grand total at the start. This will ensure both that all the parts stay together in your list and that they still appear in the correct position based on total length.

    This tweak is surprisingly helpful.

    And if you have *loads* of stuff to catch up on, experiment with putting a priority (say from 1-5) before the length (“03 – 02-14 – Tim_Ferriss…). If you do that Windows will put the important stuff at the top of the list.

    PS. If you’re not sure how to ascertain the length of an item, in Windows at least, right click on it, choose “properties” and go to the “details” tab.

  21. He was taking part in making visualisation of the El Capitan climbing route for Google Trips – must have seen.

  22. Enjoyed the podcast…really deconstructed Alex from being a guy portrayed as being sans fear and seeing how he smartly prepares and approaches climbs…a bit different from the way he was profiled on TV (60 Minutes?) as a [solely free climbing] robot. Atta boy Tim!

  23. Way to grind through this Tim. If Alex wants to get better at being an interviewee, may I suggest he take some improv training. His responses were the antithesis of “Yes, and”; making this one of the hardest Tim Ferriss podcasts to listen to.

  24. Props to Tim on this one, this guy must have been painful to interview. Personally Alex is pretty dull dude however he does some amazing climbing.

  25. Great interview. There were a few awkward moments, perhaps clunky questions, but some amazing points, and it was great to hear his side of some of the stories out there.

    One of the fun things about the podcast format is the picture you create in your mind, vs. seeing something. Mike Rowe in a bar, taking a break from the opera, in full Viking costume, making a bet that will change his career path.

    And by golly, if you’ve got Jimmy Chin in the room, get that man a mic that works!

  26. Hi Tim, you don’t know me but I’ve been listening and following you for long while.

    I don’t normally do this, but I’d be remiss to have never reached out to you (you know, universe and all that) and said how much I like you. I really “like like” you. Now that all your assistants have ammunition to tease you 😉 … Hey, if you’d ever be up for a drink with me sometime, I’d love to meet you.

    Cheers, Ferriss.


  27. Immediately I’m inclined “pull a Tim” and try to find some super out-of-the-box way to pose a question. Your work is powerful.

    My name is Matt Maruca, I’m 16, I’m from Philadelphia, and I’m just finishing a 10-month gov’t funded cultural exchange in Banja Luka, Bosnia. I didn’t even know who you were when I signed up, but a free trip across the globe is totally Tim Ferriss stuff, so I’m proud of my instinct.

    I’ll start with my question for you: Is it possible that someone like me knows something that you don’t know? And, is it possible for me know the answer to the biggest questions humans have been asking, ever since we became aware of our existence? I beg your indulgence; I am the opposite of conceited, I merely wish to provoke thought and get an honest answer.

    I just started your book and I’m in love with the logic; it should be required basic education. I’ve been on the path to optimize my life for almost 3 years after some health issues had me thoroughly depressed and unable to function in school or in anything else- horrible gas and other gut issues, daily headaches and migraines, pain from waking up and getting out of bed, absence of energy, very underweight and pale, an always-stuffed nose, itchy eyes, and other allergy symptoms, and so on. Ironically, I was blessed with a wealthy family and phenomenal education certainly in the top 5% of the planet. I was tricked to believe my whole life that all my issues were genetic, until I was in the ER for a migraine that didn’t end for 3 weeks. Another signal that something must have been wrong was as basic as eating some french fries and getting an acne breakout- connecting for myself that I must have a “damaged gut” and entering this never-ending rabbit hole, currently stumbling upon yourself.

    What I found in my research allowed me understand how life fundamentally works, why all diseases occur, how the majority of functions in our body are run, how I could solve all of my physical and mental problems and work towards being a human being optimal in all respects of the word- physically, mentally, and so on. The first question I usually get is: “If what you’re saying is true, why do only you know about it?” (because, they don’t know that a few 1,000 others do too)

    This sounds like insanity, but continue to indulge me. If there was a field of scientific research, the findings of which say that the way society today functions, the most fundamental technologies of the 21st century, are killing us beyond our perception, would the public know about it yet? Would industries and governments that would suffer trillions (and, cease to exist) in losses allow it to become part of “conventional knowledge”- ie what is backed by them, and everyone believes? Could it be possible that the epidemics of modern (non-infectious) disease could be caused by the massive incongruences between the environments from which our genes developed to gain energy to create a functioning organism, and the ones in which the average modern human lives today? I suffered a lot and tested on myself, and the truth has become irrefutable. To anyone interested in understanding what this means, look up a science called Quantum Biology, and the man who has been connecting the dots for the longest, Dr. Jack Kruse of New Orleans (Tim, the world might explode if you had this man on your podcast).

    So, my final question: Say there were something that you knew to be certainly and incontrovertibly true beyond all doubts, such that your very being could not be real if it were false. Yet, the truth were so far beyond the realm of perception of almost every single individual around you in life (except the growing community aware of the research), so contrary to the assumptions upon which everyone lives their life and upon which most of modern society is based, that the mere mention of it to anyone would make you stick out more than a streaker in the Superbowl. You believe that if an injustice is being committed against an unknowing human race and you know better, it is your one priority to do everything in your power to make the truth known and to eliminate lies that keep billions of lives from their basic human right- the pursuit of happiness, and you also know that moderation can not and will not change the world- the Founding Fathers, Ghandi, Mandela, King, and many others would not have done what they did if they compromised with the mass consciousness. Your lifespan is extremely limited, but you know if our species continues down its path without this knowledge, many more people will suffer a lot more, as will our planet, until either we face extinction, or the truth becomes so apparent that it can no longer be ignored by the masses in exchange for comfort and “moderation”, as it was before; at which point it might be too late. What would you do?

  28. Hi Tim,

    Great work. I listen to your podcast frequently; I think you’re a very effective and insightful interviewer. However, every time I see a new podcast, this thought pops up in my head: why are 99% of the people you interview men? Where are all the women?? This has bugged me enough times that I just had to leave a comment about it. Thanks.

  29. Oi Tim!! Vi em alguns posts que você estava estudando Português, então espero que compreenda minha mensagem:

    Estou tirando muito proveito do conteúdo valioso do seu blog e dos podcasts! Obrigada por compartilhar essas informações e experiências. Me identifico muito com tudo o que você aborda.

    Anyway, just felt like expressing some gratitude and recognition for your work. Ever since I accidentally ran into your blog and started listening to your podcasts during my mornings workout, life’s been a little bit happier!

    Best wishes from Brazil!


  30. Tim mentioned elbow problems on this podcast. Is that from gymnastic training so close to the podcast from Coach Sommmers?

  31. Tim mentioned sore elbows in the podcast. I am wondering if this is something he did in gymnastic training, this being so soon after the fantastic interview with Coach Sommers.

  32. How I wish I should have the same courage and braveness. Apparently, I am not that strong for now. In fact, I am currently reading so much Life Blogs lately like of Moustafa Hamwi — the passion guy blog called Passion Sundays.

  33. Tim, After reading your website I still couldn’t figure the best way to reach out, Sorry. I BELIEVE YOU SHOULD INTERVIEW, Lin-Manuel Miranda ( Amazing Talent, Vision and work ethic. Also is and can change the world in ways he can’t even see. (1) Exciting Nation and Youthful people about USA History // Making people care again // Political expression, 1st Amend revolution (2) Making Theater (Art) cool again (3) On John Oliver HBO and becoming modern activist (4) colorful person to draw Respect, Trust, and Admiration toward an important industry/job/profession.

    Tim sorry if this is the completely wrong way to contact you and all I did was piss on of your people off. I think this would be a great interview, both parties would have fun, Lot of cool paths you can go and it would bring together Theater and Business audience of listeners!!


    Connor Vande Wege aka Wedge aka living at home and trying to make shit happen

  34. The Bradford Washburn book he mentioned is The Last of His Kind by David Roberts- highly recommended.

  35. I was very disappointed in the whole “Sacred Economics” discussion. Not sure where to start? People have all kinds of ideas about what is or isn’t “fair”. Who decides that? You? The Government? How about this, mind your own business in the maximum spirit of freedom and let true Capitalism, (which is not what we have now by the way), take its course. It’s not for others to decide who has “enough” money. If you want to encourage wealthy people to be more philanthropic, fine, but to suggest there is a limit at which someone has “enough” money is actually scary because that would involve governmental force.

    I would also say the same about vegetarianism. If you want to be a vegan, fine, but do me the courtesy of leaving me the hell alone. All The Best!! WW

    1. But what is TRUE capitalism? You seem to believe it exists apart from the people who make up the market, as if it’s some sort of entity of its own. But that’s wrong. Capitalism is simply a market system devised by people. People have always decided what capitalism is supposed to be, and this odd, right-wing notion that we can somehow set it free is ridiculous. It’ akin to me saying that if I just allowed my right hand to do what it wanted, it would be capable of so much more when not controlled by my mind. So, since capitalism is both a man-made creation and a system kept alive by men and women participating in it, then why can’t they redefine its goals and parameters as they see fit?

  36. Oh my god! he really has some super power. How could a normal man climb like this? When I saw his video I was literally scared. I was carefully watching his video that he is using any kind of support or safety measures but no he was climbing without it.

    Amazing!! Amazing !!

  37. Very interesting talk. You hear the calm and flat, steady mentality of someone who can free-solo like no one else. As one of the best in the history of the sport, this type of fearlessness takes a certain disposition and Alex has it in spades.

  38. Climbers are often difficult folks to interview. No fault of Alex (youth), but really the older, largely forgotten, battle scarred, lifelong climbers have more wisdom to share. A life long study of nature is subtle, the public wants it, and if you find someone who has that “voice”, reach out to their truck, van, or shack in the woods.

  39. As someone who’s been involved in the climbing world for a couple of decades , it was super refreshing to have someone like Tim interview Alex.

    @Tim: Your podcasts have been great but I especially like your newer question to your guests. “Do you have any ask or request for the audience?”

  40. @Tim:

    Thanks for this great Episode. I really enjoyed listening to it while taking my 6 month old son for a ride in his stroller.

    @Alex: Thanks for inspiring us with such passionate lifestyle. Take care.

    @J Harrison and others: I don´t see he is a bad interviewee at all, definitely not. It´s the concept of interview that has its limits. Producing something meaningful, something on topic without giving too much pressure. That is the real challenge for the interviewer. He (Alex) is just somehow on his on level and saying, “I dont know…” meaning well I see your point, but it could be different. This style reminds me of [pause] … [silence] …. [yo.] … [why not]. Climbing is an art, and that means this dude fully embraces outdoor lifestyle, there is no greater comitment, no greater way to say: Look at the beauty of this rock, of this world.


  41. That’s funny I ran into Marc Andre at Smith Rock… He did my project, Churning in the Wake, like it was cake!

  42. It is interesting to learn peoples different philosophies of life. Although I can’t relate in this case, I certainly respect and admire what he has accomplished.

  43. Romantic Warrior (29 ish minutes in) is named after the Return to Forever album (Chick Corea). One of the most epic jazz rock fusion records.